Many thanks to Travel Writer Helen Ochyra for coming on board our 6-night cruise "Heritage and Wildlife of the Southern Hebrides" and providing this feature on her experience.
Cruising around Scotland is not like cruising anywhere else. And cruising the Outer Hebrides in a small vessel with an experienced crew who really love the islands is a special experience. Secret anchorages become accessible, locally sourced sourced seafood dinners and a flexible itinerary are the norm on a Scottish islands cruise with the small vessel specialist, The Majestic Line
I recently spent six nights on the Glen Massan, pictured above, a lovingly restored wooden fishing vessel, sailing around the southern Outer Hebrides (Mull, Islay, Jura), exploring their heritage and wildlife.
We boarded in Oban. This is the west coast’s main port and self-styled seafood capital of Scotland. I tested this out with dinner at the Seafood Temple Restaurant, feasting on delicious, sweet lobster overlooking the bay and the setting sun. Later, as the crew of the Glen Massan ferried our luggage from the restaurant to the ship, I nibbled plump prawns at Cuan Mor a seafront restaurant, bar and brewery.
This standard of service set the tone for the trip. The crew of four (skipper, engineer, bosun and chef) were on hand 24 hours a day. Unlike on many cruises, the bridge was constantly open to passengers, to use the binoculars and look out for wildlife or just to chat to the skipper. Drinks were brought up to us on the sun deck, often along with cakes homemade by chef Andie.
Each day we discussed our itinerary over breakfast - my choice freshly cooked porridge with a shot of whisky and a dash of honey, but if that's not your favorite way to start the day, don't worry, there's plenty of variety. The whiskies we drank were often inspired by our destinations. The bar was stocked with a good range, including my personal favourites Laphraoig and Lagavulin, enjoyed more than ever, with the distilleries picked out in bright whitewashed brick on the Islay coast to starboard.
We made land on a total of six islands but sailed past many more, including Mull, which was a real winner in the wildlife stakes – sea eagles perched on trees, otters playing at the base of the cliffs. Each time we went ashore we were tendered in, the crew using a small but sturdy craft to manoeuvre as close to dry land as possible. Only on Lismore on our final afternoon did we have to make any kind of leap and even then I didn’t get my feet wet.
On Gigha (pronounced GHEE - yuh) we saw crab scuttling beneath clear waters, on Colonsay birds wheeled above as we hiked to secluded bays and on Islay (pronounced EYE-luh) the main attraction was the whisky, tasted at the distillery and taken back to the boat. There were daily opportunities for hiking and near-daily chances to swim in the sea. We spent plenty of time off the boat.
A Sailor’s Life
In some ways, this was almost a shame, because I came to love my floating home. The experience of staying onboard such a small vessel had concerned me slightly at the start of the week, as I wheeled my suitcase off the train at Oban. But by the end I had adapted completely. Majestic Line cabins have proper beds in them, which can be made up as double or twin, and en suite bathrooms with a shower, toilet and wash basin. Each one also has natural light, either through an opening window or non-opening porthole, and bedding and towels are changed mid-week (though towels are dried daily by the bosun).
Meals were taken together, around one large table, so the group (a maximum of 12 passengers can fit aboard) spent plenty of time together, discussing the scenery, the wildlife and, above all, the food. And the food was excellent. The galley may have been small but chef Andie made the most of it, producing perfectly cooked venison, succulent steaks and even the trout some of the other passengers caught in Loch Spelve. All the seafood served on board is from the isles and the meat comes from Andie’s favourite Ayrshire butcher. There is plenty of local produce here.
Because the weather was in our favour, we spent plenty of time on the loungers on the sun deck, but there was a very comfortable lounge area, which was large enough for everyone and had unrestricted access to the bar. A basket of chocolate bars sustained us between meals, of which there were three a day, plus morning and afternoon tea, when those homemade cakes brought everyone to the table.
Taking in the scenery from the top deck – looking out at the verdant Mull coastline or over to the dramatic peaks of the Paps of Jura – I realised that cruising in Scotland is not like cruising anywhere else. Calm waters sparkled under a bright blue sky, marine and birdlife flowed past the ship continuously and the scenery had me reaching for my camera more often than my whisky. No, cruising in Scotland is not like cruising anywhere else. It is better.